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Alan Ball MBE

 

Alan Ball MBE (born Farnworth, Lancashire, May 12th 1945) was a footballer who was the youngest member of England's 1966 World Cup winning team.

Promising Young Player

A tireless, marauding midfield player who could operate centrally or on the right flank, Ball came to prominence at Blackpool after falling foul of his headmaster over missing games for his school team due to a youth contract he'd acquired with Wolverhampton Wanderers. After leaving school, Wolves decided not to take Ball on, and he started training with Bolton Wanderers but they too decided not to give him a professional deal, saying he was too small. Blackpool then signed him up after Ball's father, an ex-player himself, called in a favour with the coach, an old friend with whom he used to play. Ball was given a trial and was immediately signed up. He made his debut in 1962 and managed 116 League appearances. Despite being in an unglamorous and struggling team, Ball's industry, stamina and distribution was noticed by England manager Alf Ramsey, who gave him his international debut in 1965 in a 1-1 draw with Yugoslavia, three days before the end of his teenage years.

Ball was the youngest member of the squad of 22 selected by Ramsey for the tournament, aged only just 21. Though England as a team emerged collectively heroic from the tournament, Ball was one of many players regarded as an individual success, especially as he was one of the more inexperienced charges with no proven record at the very highest level. Indeed, he, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters emerged with enormous credit and eternal acclaim from the competition - and all of them were still only in single figures for caps won by the time they were named in the team for the final against West Germany.

Last Minutes

The 100,000 crowd at Wembley witnessed a magnificent personal performance from Ball. Full of running, he continued to work and sprint and track back while team-mates and opponents alike were out on their feet. With fewer than 15 minutes to go, he won a corner on the right which he promptly took. Hurst hit a shot from the edge of the area which deflected into the air and down on to the instep of Peters, who rifled England 2-1 ahead. The Germans equalised with seconds to go, meaning that the game went into extra time. Somehow, this instilled extra bounce into Ball's play and the image of his continuous running round the Wembley pitch, socks round his ankles, is one of the most enduring of the occasion. It was his chase and low cross which set up Hurst's massively controversial second goal, and England's third; he was also sprinting upfield, unmarked and screaming for a pass, as Hurst took the ball forward to smash his historic hat-trick goal with the last kick of the game.

England's fans and media were thrilled with the achievement and Ball was taken to the sport's bosom to the extent that the bids started coming in. It took a record offer of £110,000 from Everton later in 1966 before Blackpool let Ball go.

By now, Ball was one of the first names on Ramsey's England teamsheet and he was in the squad which travelled as defending champions to the altitude of Mexico for the 1970 World Cup. Ball famously hit the crossbar with a shot as England lost one of their group games 1-0 to Brazil, one of six strikingly prominent incidents from a fabulous game (the others being Jairzinho's goal; Jeff Astle's miss; Gordon Banks' save from Pelé; Bobby Moore's impeccable tackle on Jairzinho; and the sight of Pelé and Moore's mutual smiles of respect at the end as they exchanged shirts). England won their other group games and progressed to another showdown with West Germany in the quarter finals but the heat sapped Ball's natural industry. England lost a 2-0 lead and their reign as world champions ended with a 3-2 reverse.

Back To Normality

Back at club level, Everton again capitulated in the semi-finals of the FA Cup in 1971, with Ball's opening goal overhauled by two strikes from Merseyside rivals Liverpool, who went on to lose the final to "double"-chasing Arsenal. Ball later picked up his 50th England cap in a match against Northern Ireland and at the end of 1971, Arsenal came up with a record offer of 220,000 pounds to take Ball to Highbury. It was a great move by Arsenal, with Ball now 26 years of age and at his peak for both form and fitness. That said, Arsenal couldn't defend their League title in 1972 and also lost their grasp on the FA Cup when Leeds beat them 1-0 in the centenary final at Wembley. Ball again had to be content with a runners-up medal.

In 1973, Ball became only the second player to be sent off in a full international, reacting with fury to violent tactics by Poland in a qualifier for the 1974 World Cup in Warsaw. As a result, he missed the return game at Wembley which became one of the most notorious in England history - a 1-1 draw in which England were kept out almost entirely by Polish goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski. England failed to qualify for the World Cup as a result.

Ramsey was sacked as a result and Joe Mercer took over at a caretaker level, for whom Ball never appeared due to injury. However, Ball's relationship with his national side was enhanced and then infamously soured beyond repair when Don Revie was appointed as Ramsey's permanent replacement.

Ball was given the captaincy after the abrupt dropping of Emlyn Hughes by Revie and Ball held it for six consecutive games of varying importance, none of which England lost. Yet even though his charges had just comprehensively beaten Scotland 5-1 in May 1975, Ball was not called up at all, let alone retained as captain, when Revie announced his next squad for a game against Switzerland three months later. Ball only found out when his wife took a call from a journalist asking for her reaction. Only just 30, Ball's international career had ended suddenly and acrimoniously after 72 appearances and eight goals, when it had always seemed certain that he would get to 100 caps but for injury. His omission from the squad was one of a handful of PR calamities which raged through the Revie era at the helm of the England team.

Leaving the Gunners

Ball continued with Arsenal until the end of 1976 when he was sold to Southampton. Here was completed a coincidental symmetry to the three transfers in Ball's career - he had arrived at each club - Everton, Arsenal and Southampton - at the end of the calendar years of 1966, 1971 and 1976 respectively, when each were holders of the FA Cup. Yet Ball never won the Cup himself.

He helped Southampton back to the First Division in 1978 and picked up a League Cup runners-up medal in 1979 after they were beaten 3-2 by Nottingham Forest. Ball then went to play in the fledgling North American Soccer League for Vancouver Whitecaps.

His first club, Blackpool, came calling and Ball returned to Bloomfield Road as player manager but this didn't last after he was tempted back to Southampton to play alongside fellow veterans and former England team-mates Mick Channon and Kevin Keegan. Ball played for Southampton in the top flight until he was 37 before joining Bristol Rovers, where he ended his playing days. He played a huge 975 competitive matches in his career.

Top Manager

Bravely, Ball went to Portsmouth to resume his management career and was a huge success, guiding them to the top flight in 1987 while not incurring too much wrath from Southampton fans in the process. He left Portsmouth in 1989 and had two years in charge at Stoke City and spells at Exeter City and on Graham Taylor's backroom team with England.

In 1994, Ball went back to Southampton as manager and despite initial success, was tempted away a year later to become Manchester City's manager under the ownership of ex-England team-mate Francis Lee. Ball's tenure at Maine Road was controversial, in that many observers and supporters felt he was appointed for his name and friendship with the chairman rather than for any credentials as a coach (and pointed out that previous manager Brian Horton, whom Lee had inherited from the previous regime, had done no wrong), and City were relegated from the Premiership on the last day of Ball's first full campaign. He quit three games into the following season.

MBE

He later had another spell at Portsmouth but has been out of the coaching side of football for some years. In 2000, he and four other members of the World Cup winning team were awarded the MBE for their servives to football, an award which many felt was long overdue. Ball, along with Roger Hunt, Nobby Stiles, Ray Wilson and George Cohen, had to wait more than three decades for official recognition of their achievements.

Always a distinctive figure thanks to his diminuitive stature, his high-pitched voice and flame-red hair, Ball released his autobiography, Playing Extra Time, in 2004 and received much critical acclaim. Aside from his highs and lows in football, it also candidly detailed his private struggle as a family man after his wife and daughter were both diagnosed with cancer. His wife died later the same year.

In May 2005, Ball, who has three grandchildren, put his World Cup winners' medal and commemorative tournament cap up for auction to raise money for his family. It was sold for £140,000.